(and by “best” I mean my favourites)
2015 has come and gone, and left in its wake are a huge swath of movies to delight our eyeballs and earholes. Some franchise revivals missed the mark (I’m looking at you Jurassic World!) while others were blessedly good (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, phew). There were lots of gems both big and small – here are the ones I liked best:
20. The Martian
The Martian is eager to please, cramming in so many geeky references that the movie threatens to implode once Sean Bean makes a meta Lord of The Rings joke. No matter, as its boundless enthusiasm, optimism and, yes, humour ensure that it’s not only smart but supremely entertaining. A crowdpleaser in the best sense of the word, but Matt Damon haters need not apply as he’s in it. A lot. (Spoiler alert: he’s The Martian!) (full review here)
You know a director’s talented when he can set most of a film inside a cramped 10′ x 10′ room yet still tell a compelling story. That’s exactly what Lenny Abrahamson does with the adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are never short of believable as Ma and Jack, an imprisoned mother and son who eventually seek a way out of their cruel captor’s prison. Jack’s first true taste of the real world may rank as the year’s best scene. (full review here)
Nina Hoss stars as a disfigured concentration camp survivor in post-WWII Berlin as she seeks to reclaim her life following reconstructive surgery. This stylish noir is drenched in shadows and unfolds with the careful precision of the best Hitchcock had to offer (Vertigo looming largest). Beyond the stunning central performance lies one of the strongest endings in recent memory, a moment nestled within a masterclass of subtle and efficient filmmaking.
17. Steve Jobs
Not since American Psycho has an asshole been this much fun to watch. Danny Boyle’s kinetic direction marries well with Aaron Sorkin’s hyper-verbose script to create a snapshot of the titular Apple founder across three time periods. It’d all be for naught without a game cast and Steve Jobs delivers top to bottom, including Michael Fassbender in the lead role, proving once again why he’s one of the most magnetic actors of his generation. (full review here)
Director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine) delivers another great looking film, this time showcasing 1950s New York during Christmas. Beyond the impeccable production design lies a delicate romance between characters played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Heavy with symbolism and freighted with themes of self discovery and forbidden love, Carol can keep the audience at a distance but shines brightly when it lets them in. (full review here)
15. Bone Tomahawk
Bone-crunching and brutal, Bone Tomahawk merges the Western with a gruesome cannibal element. Kurt Russell continues his 2015 reign as King of The Cowboys (see also: Hateful Eight, The) in a perverse story that takes more than a little inspiration from Tarantino himself. Don’t let its breezy middle act fool you – Bone Tomahawk ends on some of the most extreme violence of the year, putting its well-realized characters through the wringer of a warped and unforgiving frontier. (full review here)
14. Ex Machina
This is the best type of sci-fi – the kind that poses questions but doesn’t force answers, leaving enough of a trail of breadcrumbs to argue with your friends into the night. The three leads all help to carry the high concept (the invention and testing of a supposed artificial intelligence) but it’s Alicia Vikander as the robot Ava who leaves the biggest impression. The movie also plays with perspective and sympathies, giving further grist to grind on future viewings. Weird and chilling. (full review here)
An unconventional biopic that takes place over the last few days of a book tour, The End of The Tour is a great hangout movie centered around two smart guys mostly just talking. Jesse Eisenberg is a natural choice as a brainy journalist, but it’s the casting of Jason Segel as late author David Foster Wallace that’s a true risk. The odd choice pays off as director James Ponsoldt brings a relaxed vibe to this intimate character study and avoids cliches while still probing the inner lives of both men. It’s verbal chess infused with humour and whip-smart intelligence, resulting in one of best conversations you’ve ever had. (full review here)
12. The Wolfpack
Like movies? So do these guys. Meet the Angulo Brothers, six restlessly inventive boys who grew up in near total isolation in a New York apartment with movies as their only escape from a controlling father. Not content to merely watch them, they go a step further and emulate their heroes by shooting remakes of their favourites, complete with props and costumes cobbled together from whatever’s on hand. Theirs is a story of the powerful pull of film and what happens when you force those dreams into existence. Strange but true, it’s a documentary tailor-made for cinephiles and dreamers alike. (full review here)
Audiences seemed surprised by how good Creed turned out to be but anyone who’d seen director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan’s previous movie Fruitvale Station knew that this return to the Rocky franchise held promise. An overachiever in every sense, Creed ends up as the second-best film in the entire series (next to the first Rocky) and an fitting rebuttal to its opponents who though it long dead. And the next-level boxing scenes are all kinds of stupendous. Let’s hope the principal cast and crew can keep up this level of excellence in the inevitable sequel. (full review here)
10. James White
An intimate portrait of a self-destructive fuckup – there’s rarely a moment when the camera isn’t pushed in close on Christopher Abbott’s title character. It’s raw and visceral, detailing the backslide of an aimless 20-something New Yorker that starts with the loss of his dad and ends with his mom fighting cancer (Cynthia Nixon in a bravura performance). It’s suffocating at times but a work of genuine emotion. Few movies bring you this close into someone’s life and fewer still revolve around a subject as messily human as James White.
9. Diary of a Teenage Girl
Merging occasional animation with the stark realities of life, Diary of a Teenage Girl is an smartly adroit film that portrays a teenager’s sexual awakening without exploiting the subject or character. A clever and empathetic script is helped immeasurable by a strong sense of place (70s San Francisco) and a stellar cast led by Bel Powley as the title girl. Funny, heartbreaking and truthful, it provides a powerful message without pandering, and should be required viewing for all teenagers.
Quentin Tarantino is back and angrier than ever. Working on a 70mm film canvas and armed with his first original score (from legendary composer Ennio Morricone), The Hateful Eight is peak Tarantino – a pastiche of what he’s into now (frontier justice, Samuel L. Jackson, Westerns, 1980’s The Thing, Clue) that’s long, talky, and drenched in blood. A typically amazing cast (Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh are standouts), underlying urgency and timeliness of themes ensure that Tarantino is in no danger of slowing down. (full review here)
A screwball portrait of an aging party girl and the young cousin she takes under her wing, Mistress America is another collaboration between Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) that walks the line between celebrating and shitting on its characters with hilarious results. Quintessentially New York and caustic to the core, Baumback and Gerwig still find time for charitable grace notes that make Mistress America a rare and unique coming-of-age movie, further cementing the duo as the heirs apparent to Woody Allen. (full review here)
The hands-down funniest movie of 2015 is a vampire mockumentary starring one half of Flight of The Conchords. Co-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have crafted a meticulous supernatural underworld in Wellington, New Zealand and populated it with vampire roommates and bumbling werewolves that have deal with not only who does the dishes but where their next victim is coming from. Come for the endlessly quotable dialogue and instantly classic characters, stay for the explanation as to why a virgin’s blood tastes best. Note to Clement and Waititi: more please. (full review here)
Spotlight is almost perversely anti-cinematic – it’s little more than dogged journalists digging deeper into an increasingly horrific real-life story. But – much like its TV analog The Wire – it’s incredibly fascinating and will cause endless outrage at the bureaucracy that fails its citizens. One of the year’s best casts (led by Michael Keaton – give this man an Oscar, okay?) and an ode to honest hard work, Spotlight proves that great movies needn’t always be flashy. (full review here)
A drug thriller (or “Tequila Noir”) that vibrates with David Mamet-like dialogue and white-knuckle action, Sicario (meaning “hitman”) is dripping with endless dread. A treatise on the futility of The War on Drugs and examination of the grey area in which law enforcement often operates, there were few movies that looked better than Sicario in 2015 and fewer still that operated with its shark-like economy of story and character. (full review here)
3. Inside Out
Pixar, the company with the nearly perfect track record, proves it can still impress with one its best offerings yet. Inside Out brilliantly and elegantly shows the inner workings of an 11-year-old’s mind and by doing so helps us understand ourselves and our surroundings more clearly. Inventive, fraught with peril (Bing Bong!) and frankly amazing, it strikes that delicate balance of heart and humour that the best Pixar efforts deliver. (full review here)
Charlie Kaufman’s latest mindfuck is a misanthropic tale of loneliness and alienation in the modern world, told entirely through stop-motion marionettes. In other words it’s a movie that only Kaufman (with help from co-director Duke Johnson) could’ve made. Beautiful and devastating, it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before, a rare breath of fresh air in an increasingly homogenized world. Plus it steals the highly contested title of Best Puppet Sex Scene from Team America: World Police. (full review here)
George Miller returns to the franchise that launched his career and proves that even at 70, he’s capable of making some of the most thrilling and groundbreaking action on screen in this or any other year. Fury Road works as a gloriously insane ode to the power of cinema and it’s so chock full of action that conveys so much, it’d work nearly as well as a silent movie. On its surface it’s a breathless two-hour chase full of mostly practical stunt work that’s miles beyond anything seen before, but it quickly becomes clear that every prop, character and car crash has been crafted with extreme care and forethought. A post-apocalyptic Western, an ode to feminine strength and the best entry in a nearly 40-year-old series – Fury Road is all of these things and more, and it’s the best movie of 2015. I can’t wait to watch it again and again. (full review here)
Honourable Mentions: 45 Years, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Cartel Land, Cop Car, The Club, The Duke of Burgundy, The Gift, Goodnight Mommy, It Follows, Kingsmen: The Secret Service, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mission Highly Improbable: Rogue Nation, Results, The Revenant, Trainwreck, While We’re Young, Youth.